How to Collect Your Own Family Folklore
The most productive family folklore interviews
are those that take place in a natural context for the reasons explained
at the beginning of this guide: family folklore is a living part of a family
and cannot be successfully separated from the everyday activities of that
family. This can present problems since it will be impossible for you to
be present during every naturally occurring folkloric event. You should
make use of such opportunities whenever possible, however. Some common natural
contexts are family dinners, picnics, reunions, and holidays. These are
the times at which families would tell stories whether or not you are there
with your tape recorder. Under these circumstances you will probably not
even have to conduct an interview--just adjust the recorder, relax, and
participate as you would ordinarily.
If no spontaneous natural context seems to be available, you will have
to rely on what is called an induced natural context. The distinction is
straightforward. Instead of waiting for a family dinner to occur in the
normal course of events, you initiate one. This approach has the added advantage
of giving you a degree of control over the situation. For example, you can
invite specific relatives who interact well with each other. Try serving
foods that you know will bring back memories from the past.
The group interview context, whether natural or induced, has one major
characteristic that makes it extremely fruitful. The interaction that occurs
as a matter of course serves to spark the memories of the participants.
One story leads into another, one interpretation elicits cries of "but
that's not really the way it happened at all!" The end result of such
an interview will differ greatly from private interviews with the same relatives.
Private interviews can also be either natural or induced. If grandma
begins to talk to you about her journey to this country while you are washing
the supper dishes, fine-- unfortunately, you probably won't be prepared
with a tape recorder. If you wish to privately interview a relative, try
not to do so under formal circumstances. Suggest some activity that will
allow you to maintain a conversation easily but will help keep the session
natural and low key: going for a walk, sewing, baking. If you know beforehand
that a particular activity is usually a time for storytelling, schedule
your interview to coincide with that event. Familiar surroundings and routine
activities will also help to distract the informant from the fact that he
or she is being interviewed and will lessen the unsettling impact of the
Every interview that you do will
be unique. These brief suggestions should be helpful in most circumstances.
1. Start with a question or a topic that you know will elicit
a full reply from your subject, such as a story you have heard him tell
in the past. This will give your relative confidence in his ability to contribute
something of value to your collection.
2. Avoid generalities. "Tell me about your childhood,"
for instance, often elicits nothing more than a list of names and dates.
3. Ask evocative questions. Nothing can kill an interview faster
than a long series of questions that require only yes or no as answers.
4. Face up to the fact that there will be some information that
you will not get. You may be the wrong sex or age. A relative may simply
not trust you with sensitive data. If you feel you must have the missing
material, you may be able to solicit the help of another relative or friend
as an interviewer.
5. Be aware that role switching will occur. You have changed from
a son or daughter to an interrogator. Both you and your informant may be
uneasy in these new roles. A low-key approach in a natural setting should
help relieve some of the discomfort.
6. Show interest. Encourage your informants as much as possible.
Interject remarks whenever appropriate. Take an active part in the conversation
without dominating it. Learn to be a creative listener as well as a good
7. Know what questions you want to ask, but don't be afraid to
let your informant go off on a tangent. He or she might just touch on subjects
of interest that you never thought to ask about.
8. Never turn off the tape recorder unless asked to. Not only
does it break the conversation, such action suggests that you think some
of your informant's material is not worth recording.
9. Use props whenever possible. Documents, letters, photo albums,
scrapbooks, home movies, and other farnily heir- looms can all be profitably
used to stimulate memories.
10. Be sensitive to the needs of family members. Schedule your
sessions at a convenient time. Older people tire easily; cut the interview
off at the first sign of fatigue. Don't slight family members who show interest
in your project. Interview them, even if you have reason to believe their
material will be of minimal value.
11. If possible, prepare some sort of written report for the family
as a tangible result of their participation. Remember to save all of your
tapes, notes, and any other documentation that you have accumulated. Label
everything with names, dates, and places. Ideally, all tapes should be indexed
and transcribed as soon as possible after the interview. You will be more
conscientious about documentation if you place yourself in the position
of your great-grandchild who, many decades in the future, will be using
your project as a source for his reconstruction.
12. Before publishing diaries, memoirs, letters, or other written
artifacts, you would be wise to find out about copyright regulations. For
example, the writer of a letter owns the copyright, not the recipient nor
the present owner of the letter. The same principle holds true for tape-recorded
oral history and folklore-- the speaker, not the tape owner, holds all rights
to his material. Most family members will gladly allow you to make use of
whatever resources you need for documenting the family's traditions, but
it never hurts to be prepared with copyright information. The Copyright
Office at the Library of Congress will send a packet of information upon
request (Copyright Office, Library of Congress,
Washington, D.C. 20540).